Four Outfests ago, Tom Gustafson's short film "Fairies" was making a stop on its long run on the festival circuit. A 20-minute musical fantasy inspired by William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Fairies" ended up screening at nearly 100 festivals, including Tribeca and pretty much every LGBT festival around. But it was at this particular stop in L.A. that Gustafson realized "Fairies"' potential for expansion. "Many people expressed their interest in seeing more of the story," Gustafson said in an interview with indieWIRE. "[Co-writer and producer] Cory Krueckeberg and I started developing ideas for the feature-length musical on our way home [from Outfest] and by the time we landed in New York City, we had a full outline." Four years later, that outline has been wholly realized as "Were The World Mine." And after many successful festival screenings (and almost as many audience awards), "World"'s journey is coming full circle as OutFest 2008's Awards Night Gala Presentation next week.
"Were The World Mine" continues "Fairies" inspiration, centering around a high school production of "Midsummer's Night." One of the play's actors, outcasted, gay, and adorable Timothy (Tanner Cohen) finds a recipe for a homo-love potion hidden in the script. In the form a purple "love pansy," Timothy attains a weapon of mass sexual disorientation, transforming his small town into a bunch of lovesick queers. Extending the themes of "Midsummer's Night," Gustafson inventively explores ideas of identity and sexuality with the help of some great musical numbers and energetic performances.
The film's distinctive fantasy found an additional muse in Gustafson's own upbringing. "While growing up gay in a small farm town, you find ways to escape," he said. "My escapes usually involved film and performance." This also led Gustafson to find his calling. "In a cliche theatre-dork kind of way, I always found ways to turn class projects into some sort of performance or video project. I loved obsessing over how to master glitch-free VCR to VCR editing. When I got older, I got a job at a tiny cinema as the manager and projectionist, which fueled my obsession and led me to enrolling in film school at Northwestern University."
Since then, he's worked in photography and in the casting departments of a slew of studio films, including "Road To Perdition" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels. "I've been lucky enough to be able to balance working on big-budget films with my own films," he said. "My work on those big-budget films has been a great learning experience and source of determination: working with actors, amazing directors and seeing first hand the mistakes and successes of day-to-day decisions made by producers and directors on the largest level. I have taken away a great deal of knowledge on 'how to' and the 'how not to' create film. The goal with my work, on the producing side, has always been to bridge the indie film and big-budget mentalities - from subject matter and style to production and distribution. There is a lot that each side of that equation can learn from the other side."
But, while "World"'s production values evidence how Gustafson bridged the stylistic worlds, defying its small budget, the film's status as a gay indie musical might make that a harder gap to fill when it comes to distribution. "While I absolutely respect the history of 'gay film' and fully appreciate the existence of distribution opportunities specific to gay content, I think films are too often immediately categorized and labeled," he admitted. "This can be extremely harmful to a film and its ability to reach a larger audience. I think 'World' is simply an indie with major gay characters but unfortunately people still feel the need to immediately put it in a 'gay box' or the 'gay closet."
So far in the festival circuit, "World" has managed to screen in and out of that closet. It won major awards at both the Florida Film Festival and Nashville Film Festival, as well as LGBT-centric fests like Toronto's Inside Out. But it has been a challenge. "Unfortunately, it has affected our 'mainstream' festival play. We have been told by numerous festivals that the film is 'too gay' for their audiences. Which is ridiculous - it's like saying that a film with heterosexual characters is 'too straight' for gay & lesbians to appreciate, which I don't think anyone would ever say."
Getting beyond the festivals has been a tough challenge, so far. "The fact that audiences often, literally, stand and cheer at the end of 'World' has frankly been bittersweet knowing that more people may not get to experience the film in a theatrical setting," he said. "Most likely based on the 'gay film' label alone, we haven't been able to get any 'mainstream' distributors to a screening, which is frustrating because they are passing on a film that has immense theatrical potential without ever experiencing it. Watching it on a DVD is a completely different experience. And based soley on the viewing of screeners, several distributors have said 'I love it, but we lost money on (insert gay indie title) so we can't take that chance again.'"
Gustafson's experiences are likely a similar story for many LGBT filmmakers and producers in this new age of "indie." LGBT-themed indies have been lucky to expand to more than 10 screens in the past few years, and even more lucky to crack a few $100,000 at the box office. "Media is already so controlled," he said in regard to the "gay indie"'s recent troubles. "What we actually get to see and experience and what is literally forced down our throats - represents such a small percentage of what is out there. People really have to search for things outside of what is available at the multiplex and this label contributes to that problem."
But for "World," a direct-to-Here! release is even more inapprporiate than the average "gay indie." "One of our goals with 'World' was to create a film that feels like a live theatrical experience and from our festival screenings, it's clear that audiences have been enjoying it in that way," Gustafson said. "It has been playing to unbelievably enthusiastic sold-out audiences and it's been extremely exciting to see the film play so well at LGBT festivals as well as 'mainstream' festivals. So before making it available on DVD and cable, we are determined to somehow give it the theatrical run that it deserves and allow people to truly 'experience' the film the way it was intended."
In the meantime, this experience is available at "World"'s Outfest screening on July 20th, just two days after the release of Gustafson's recent day job effort, which might have less of a problem being shown the way it was intended. Gustafson worked as a Background Casting Director on Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight."